As the days get shorter, the nights get spookier—at least during the month of October. If you’re looking for a few mysterious places to explore before telling ghost stories by the campfire, these quaint and curious settings offer tricks and treats for an eerie autumn mood.
1. The Goblin Gates
Olympic National Park, Washington
The powerful currents of the Elwha River rage through jagged rock outcroppings and plunge into the mouth of the Rica Canyon in the northern section of Olympic National Park. Explorer Charles A. Barnes named this stunning gorge after seeing what appeared to him as faces in the rock near the water’s edge. He wrote in his journal that the rock seemed to have “tortured expressions” and a “gloomy and mysterious character,” and that the whole stretch resembled the “throat of a monster.” Perhaps a supernatural force does control the area; though people have attempted to bridge the gates twice, the first bridge washed away and the second decayed and was removed. Now, visitors can hike to the area and admire the goblin’s swirling “mouth.”
2. Bumpass Hell
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
The steamy hot springs and burbling mudpots in this geothermal hotspot may seem spooky all on their own, but this region of Lassen Volcanic National Park became known as a “hell” after unlucky explorer Kendall Bumpass fell into a pool of boiling-hot water and lost one of his legs. The area also contains one of the hottest fumaroles in the world, Big Boiler; its acidic, high-velocity steam has been measured at temperatures up to 322 degrees Fahrenheit—closer to the weather in hell than many other national park attractions.
3. The Torture Chamber
Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota
Explorers have mapped more than 177 miles of twisting underground passageways in this cave system and continue to explore more of it each year with no end in sight, making it the third-largest cave in the world. Two of Jewel Cave’s earliest explorers, Jan and Herb Conn, discovered a large room after a long day of spelunking and were relieved to hear the sound of loudly dripping water. Desperately thirsty with nothing left to drink, they spent valuable time and energy hunting for the source of the water instead of heading back to the surface for supplies. Despite their fruitless attempts to rehydrate, they eventually survived the ordeal, exhausted, and commemorated their frustration by giving the room its ominous name.
4. The Pine Barrens
New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, New Jersey
This large wooded park is the country’s first national reserve, protecting more than a million acres across seven counties—so it’s no wonder that dozens of rare plant and animal species make their homes here. One animal rumored to live in the park’s vast patchwork of forests has captured the imagination of residents and visitors for more than 260 years, though scientists have yet to officially document the curious species. Described as a flying creature with glowing eyes, the head of a dog, the face of a goat, bat-like wings, cloven hooves, and a forked tail, the Jersey Devil has allegedly appeared to dozens of people over the course of history. We can only hope the Park Service’s expert wildlife biologists can classify this strange creature before it flies around in a screeching huff and feeds on more innocent pets, as it is sometimes rumored to do.
Death Valley National Park, California
This famously hot desert park has its share of foreboding landscapes, from Dante’s View to Devil’s Cornfield to Coffin Peak to the Funeral Mountains. The area also features more ghost towns than actual towns. In one particularly rough Old West mining settlement, a saloon owner named Joe “Hootch” Simpson allegedly gunned down a banker in a drunken rage in 1908 to settle a $20 debt. The townspeople subsequently formed a lynch mob and hanged Simpson, then buried him, exhumed him and re-hanged him for the benefit of a visiting reporter before the town doctor, finally, strangely, beheaded him. Now, the legend goes that Simpson’s headless ghost continues to haunt the area—though nothing remains of the town—to this day.
6. Devil’s Den
Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
In the summer of 1863, a small farming community became the site of the bloodiest battle in the Civil War. The fierce fighting turned farm fields into graveyards and churches into hospitals, leaving a staggering 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded, or missing after three intense days of conflict. Now, a barefoot Confederate ghost known as the “Tennessean” or the “Hippie” has appeared to numerous visitors at a rocky hill known as Devil’s Den where Union snipers fired on Confederate soldiers during the second day of the battle. This ghost is said to gesture toward a nearby stream and say, “What you’re looking for is over there,” before vanishing back into history.
7. Kennecott Copper Mines
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The total size of Wrangell-St. Elias is equivalent to six Yellowstones, with few people to occupy its vast wilderness. Nowhere does this sparse landscape feel as ghostly as it does in the abandoned mining town of Kennecott. A century ago, this desolate area was bustling with prospectors and miners, and a private company built an expensive 200-mile railroad to transport the area’s ore for processing. The railroad was treacherous to build over the rough, glaciated terrain and many people were reported to have died during the construction; still more perished in the mining operations that followed. After the copper and gold ran out and the mining towns turned to ghost towns, visitors began seeing tombstones along the abandoned track, only to return later to say that the graves had mysteriously disappeared. Legend has it that workers in the 1990s even stopped a construction project after seeing and hearing phantoms and losing tools right out of their workbelts to Kennecott’s angry ghosts.
8. Slaughter Canyon Cave
Carlsbad Cavern National Park, New Mexico
One of the most notable sights at Carlsbad Cavern is the sight of the park’s 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats leaving the cave each night at sunset in dramatic clouds of flapping wings. However, most of these bats migrate south for the winter before Halloween rolls around and don’t return until the early spring. Fortunately, visitors can still enjoy a spooky time late into October by exploring the park’s wild underground passageways. Slaughter Canyon Cave has no electric lights and no paved walkways—this means navigating with rangers for more than two hours through a totally dark, humid underworld of peculiar rock formations and … a whole lot of guano. Note: A nominal fee and a somewhat strenuous hike are required for this tour; headlamps and gloves are provided.
9. Skull Rock
Joshua Tree National Park, California
It’s a rock … that looks like a skull! Is it haunted? Probably not. But it’s a short walk off the main park road, making it one of the most accessible and fun places to explore at Joshua Tree. Climb right into the eyes of this perfect Halloween-themed hiking spot and haunt it yourself!
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, writes and edits a wide variety of online content, and manages NPCA's style guide.